“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.”
-Ronald Dahl, The Twits
Elon Musk has been CEO and Chief Twit of Twitter since the 27th October. In that time he has done everything he can to make Twitter a home for, and the product of, ugly thoughts. And, sure enough, the three groups of people he relies upon to keep Twitter a going concern have each decided that they can hardly bear to look at the face of their love/hate app.
Things unquestionably got uglier. The new owner's arrival was greeted by an eye-watering tripling spike in the use of racial slurs and wealthy advisors (as revealed in court documents) suggested playing “a delicate game of letting the right wingers back on Twitter (including the boss man himself, if you’re up for that)”.
Certainly, it is clear who considers they have the support of the Chief Twit.
Meanwhile, having skipped on due diligence so comprehensively that he ended up buying a whole social media network against his will, Musk continues to demonstrate a misplaced confidence in the contents of his own skull.
Musk sits astride his new toy like a velveteen-clad little tech Fauntleroy straddling a newly obtained rocking horse. His tweets are each heralded by a popping sound as he pulls his oversized lollipop from his mouth to confidently announce incorrect technical details about how Twitter works or, amazingly, admit believing he has bought a business whose main asset is software and servers (as opposed to the implausibly significant network of people it attracted).
Musk, the self-made heir to an emerald mine, has been sprinting through the full menu of terrible management and business decisions as though he felt the cold, crisp breath of Liz Truss’ lettuce on his neck.
The new owner has fired so many people that he prompted some of the senior people left to resign. Having fired them, he immediately tried to hire them back. Presumably, this followed an evening spent walking bent over an empty Twitter HQ, trying to find out what one switch was connected to.
His latest management gambit was announcing there would be no more remote working and that anyone who stayed would face extremely Hardcore working conditions, which he clarified would just be endless overwork in an abusive working environment.
This is at the same time that users continue to pack up and leave, making the dark, baffling and upsetting trip that is setting up an account on Mastodon to find a new world lacking both Twitter’s despot and his surrounding tin-pots.
An internal Twitter report confirmed that a tiny fraction of twitter’s users produced 90% of its tweets and half of all the revenue. The report was followed -a bare few weeks since the new management moved in- by the news that 1 million accounts had been deactivated (and an uncounted number more just abandoned). That only felt like a bleak prophesy of the wilderness to come.
In response to the deafening rush of their audience towards the doors, Musk moved to reassure the people who actually pay the bills- the advertisers. This was unexpectedly successful- in that nobody expected it to be so dramatically the opposite of success. Ad buyers for global brands actually cancelled their advertising with Twitter while he spoke to them.
He also announced a wilfully dumb idea to verify anyone who paid €8 for a blue tick. Then he cancelled the plan after every Problematic Brand was immediately impersonated by a blue tick wielding account. From drug companies seemingly announcing an end to insulin price gouging to weapons manufacturers pledging to become ethical, the blue ticks drove conversations and moved billions in stock prices. In fairness, it turns out that this could be €8 well spent.
Just a Tool
In a sense Musk embodies one of Twitter’s most unintentional and powerful social effects- that of the rich and powerful person, left alone with their phone and a blue tick account swiftly destroying the mystique and admiration that a century of PR has worked to build up around the rich and famous.
As a platform, it has allowed and encouraged a whole generation of the monied classes to speak directly to the public, in the same way a toddler will proudly announce they have filled their nappy and then look around for the applause that is their due.
This breakneck campaign of heedless destruction brings harm to a place where networks of genuine social change have coalesced and grown, from #BlackLivesMatter to #ArabSpring, building on the unexpected restoration of the # symbol from typographic obscurity to become the coral core of great reefs of people working together.
Mastodon, the primary beneficiary of Twitter’s most valuable users looking for a lifeboat, has seen its user-base swell, tripling in weeks after years of quiet, unnoticed development. Irish Twitter, for example, moved, in the space of a week, to a single Mastodon.ie server en masse. 16,000 arrivals to a server that had previously been home to 600 souls.
The greatest irony will be if Musk’s exercise of sheer infantile wealth and ego triggers a mass break from the dominant model of internet use- from a surveillance, advertising and algorithm panopticon to an entirely uncommercial, volunteer-run community-based archipelago of conversation.
Though many will mourn the loss of what made Twitter unique, in the end it was brought down by what made it just like the other titans of big tech- its users were never the clients. They were the product. When that was suddenly made clear, by a single billionaire trying to buy them all, the product simply shoplifted itself out the door.
It remains to be seen whether Twitter's fall will come from the Tweeter, staff or advertiser walk-outs first. But it doesn't seem like the fall itself is in doubt.